Florida executes man 32 years after St. Petersburg murder

Robert Waterhouse, executed for a 1980 slaying, claimed his innocence to the end.
Protesters demonstrate Wednesday in front of the Florida State Prison near Starke, where Robert Waterhouse was put to death. Associated Press
Protesters demonstrate Wednesday in front of the Florida State Prison near Starke, where Robert Waterhouse was put to death.Associated Press
Published February 16 2012
Updated February 16 2012

STARKE — The state executed Robert Waterhouse on Wednesday night, more than 32 years after he beat, raped and killed petite, red-haired Debbie Kammerer in St. Petersburg.

He was pronounced dead at 8:22 p.m. He was 65.

He was 33 at the time of the crime, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound, on-again, off-again construction hand who had been raised by an aunt. He drank too much and got mean when he did. He told friends he liked women who liked to be slapped.

She was 29, a foot shorter and more than 100 pounds lighter, a divorced mother of three whom friends described as fun and friendly and little. Her landlord called her sweet and said she always paid her bills. She had just been home to Indiana for Christmas to visit her kids.

The two of them left together from the old ABC Lounge on Fourth Street N, a witness said, the night of Jan. 2, 1980. Her body was found the next morning by a man walking his dog. She was face down and naked in the Lassing Park surf in southeast St. Pete.

The autopsy took seven hours because of the severity of what had been done. She had been battered so badly she was unrecognizable. Teeth broken. Nose broken. Eyes swollen. She had been sexually mutilated with a bottle. She had a bloody tampon jammed down her throat. Wounds on her fingers suggested she tried to fight back. She didn't die until she drowned.

Police found dried blood in his 1973 Plymouth. They found hair that matched hers and fibers that came from her clothes.

He knew her, he told them. He'd smoked marijuana with her. He'd had sex with her. He never confessed to killing her and insisted until the end that he was innocent, but he did tell detectives he was a rageful drunk with "a real strong sex drive." Sometimes, he said, "it feels like something snaps," like "flipping a lever," and all of a sudden he was doing bad things he could not control.

He whimpered to the detectives that his life was over. He said something about the electric chair. "Why do you think I've quit drinking since Wednesday night?" they said he said.

He had murdered before, in 1966 in his native Greenport, N.Y., where he raped and strangled a 77-year-old widow. He broke almost every rib in her body and left teeth marks in one of her breasts. He spent only eight years in prison before being paroled.

In Florida, for what a jury decided he did to Kammerer, he was sentenced to death twice — first in 1980, then again a decade later after an appeal.

The aunt who raised him told a reporter he changed when he was 18 after an auto accident in which he was thrown through the windshield. "Something went phooey in his mind," she said. He was "sick, sick," she said.

One prosecutor called him "pitiless." Another said he was the reason for the death penalty. "Some people by their conduct forfeit their right to exist," longtime Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe once said, and Robert Waterhouse, he believed, was one of them.

On Tuesday, Kammerer's older sister was reached on her cellphone in her car in Georgia, on her way from Indiana to Florida to watch him die.

Linda Cope talked about the birthday parties they had with their kids and the vacation they took to New York City and her last Christmas at home. How she left on New Year's Eve. How she was gone three days later.

Their mother died in 1995, and their father in 2004, "before they ever heard anything about how he was finally going to be put to death," Cope said.

"I've always thought about her, all these years," she said. "And I wish I could talk to her. And I loved her so much. And I miss her so much."

She was asked what she'd say to Waterhouse if she had the chance. She did not pause to think.

"You are a monster," she said. "You did all these things to my sister and you're cruel and you're sick and you're like a monster and I hate you."

On Wednesday, Waterhouse spent two hours in the morning with his wife, Fran Waterhouse of Gainesville, a lonely nurse who started writing letters to him on death row when she lived in California and married him in 1988 in a surrogate Mexican marriage.

He ate a last meal of two pork chop cutlets, two eggs sunny side up, two slices of toast, a slice of cherry pie, a pint of butter pecan ice cream, a pint of orange juice and a pint of milk.

He didn't meet with a religious adviser. He didn't want to.

The execution was scheduled for 6 p.m. A last-chance appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court delayed it until after 8 p.m.

The death chamber's witness room is small and almost entirely hospital-white with four tight rows of gray chairs that face a kind of picture window covered by a drab brown curtain. More than 20 people sat still and waited for the curtain to go up. It was quiet except for the hum of a window unit set to an antiseptic 62. A single moth flitted by the fluorescent lights.

The curtain clicked and rolled up slowly. Waterhouse was on his back on a gurney under a white sheet. He looked up for a couple seconds at Cope and the others and then put his head back down. He was asked if he had a statement to make.

"You are about to witness the execution of a wrongfully convicted, innocent man," he said at the start. "To my wife and family, I want to say I love you all, and that's it," he said at the end.

The first chemical sedated him, the second chemical paralyzed him and the third chemical stopped his heart. He yawned two minutes in. His breathing became loose-lipped and labored. His mouth opened and closed, once, twice, 15 times, and then it stayed open. A man in a white coat with white gloves shined a light into his eyes and felt for a pulse.

It took 11 minutes.

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson and staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8751.